This is Part 2 of a 5-part series reviewing the first quarter of Portland's season.
PG - Damian Lillard
After winning rookie of the year last season, expectations were through the roof coming into year 2. Lillard has said that he's not happy with how he's playing so far this season, but his improvement is obvious. The most telling numbers through 20-games:
While Lillard's FG% has dropped slightly, that's actually tied to his improvement. You'll notice that despite a drop in FG%, Lillard's PER and ORtg have risen. How? Because he's getting to the free throw line much more frequently. His FTr has risen from .25 to .33, a great sign for his potential to improve. This rise can be attributed to an increased willingness to attack the rim. Damian's aggression, while leading to more foul shots, has also led to more of his shots being blocked or heavily contested, and thus, a lower FG%. His ability to reach that next level will be dependent on improving his mid-range game and making a higher percentage of his attempts around the basket. There's no reason this can't happen over the next several years.
The stats speak to some of Lillard's impact on this team, but not all of it. He is the only starter who can consistently create for himself and others, something that's immensely valuable late in games, where he seems to thrive. You don't have to watch Lillard for very long to realize that he's got that Oakland confidence and loves the big shot; he's definitely got that clutch gene. As the season progresses, and eventually in the playoffs, this attribute will undoubtedly prove invaluable.
The one big hole in Lillard's game is on the defensive end. He appears to have improved incrementally since last season, but he's still not very good (unless you're comparing him to Mo Williams). While he'll probably never be an above-average defender, Lillard should focus on doing as much as he can within the Terry Stotts defense and eliminate the mental mistakes that come with youth.
Aldridge might be option 1A for the Blazers, but Lillard is 1B, and every bit as important. As he continues to develop, look for an improved mid-range game to elevate his play. If his FTr continues to rise and his FG% can get up above 45, Lillard will be in the discussion when speaking of the league's best point guards.
SG - Wesley Matthews
If you've been paying any attention, then you already know that Matthews has been playing out of his mind so far this season. The story is that he's mad because he was left off the all-star ballot. Apparently, super-mad. Here are the most telling Q1 stats:
To say that those numbers are unsustainable is an understatement. It's actually amazing that they are what they are given that we're 20 games in. Going forward, expect Wes to come back down to earth a little bit. In particular, look for his shooting percentages (and thus his PER and ORtg) to regress and more closely resemble his 3-year averages of 45 (FG%) and 40 (3FG%). That said, even if Matthews matches his 3-year average numbers from here on out, this would still be his best season ever thanks to the blistering start.
Matthews is a veteran and he knows what this team needs of him. He might not be a top-5 SG in the league, but he's definitely in the top-10 and he's a perfect fit for the Blazers. As long as he continues spacing the floor by shooting > 40% from the three-point line and playing the kind of tough-nosed defense that he's known for, Stotts will be happy.
Finally, although it won't show up on the stat sheet, the energy and passion that Matthews plays with is contagious, and it is critical to Portland's success. Wesley is the heart of this team.
SF - Nicolas Batum
Those expecting the young Frenchman to take a big leap this year might be disappointed, but Batum continues to be the do-it-all, Swiss army knife in Portland's starting lineup. Nicolas still seems so young, but he's now in his 6th NBA season (how can that be?) so expecting a big jump in play was never realistic. It's clear that while Batum will never be a "star" player, he's going to keep filling up the stat sheet year after year. His Q1 stats look awfully familiar:
There aren't many guys in the league who can put up 13/6/5 with a 45/40/80 shooting split and also guard four positions on the other end. If it holds, Batum's defensive rating of 105 would be the best of his career and a promising sign that he might be realizing more of his vast defensive potential. Unless you were expecting him to become Scottie Pippen, you've got to be happy with the player he's become.
Batum's stats are very close to where they're likely to end up when the season is over. If there's anything Batum should focus on, it's getting to the line more often and reducing his turnovers. His free-throw rate (FTr) of .224 is slightly lower than it's been over the past two seasons. Given that he's such a good foul shooter, this isn't a positive development. The easiest way for Batum to become more efficient is to get to the foul line more, a reasonable expectation given his recent history. Additionally, while his assist % tripled last year under Stotts, his turnover % climbed too. This is a natural and reasonable development, but eliminating some of the bad turnovers he's prone to is the next step.
If anyone out there is still expecting Nico to become a perennial all-star, it's time to let go of those dreams. He is what he is, and that's not a bad thing; he's one of the NBA's best do-everything players, and those kinds of guys are exceedingly valuable. Let's hope that Batum can make some incremental improvements as the season progresses.
PF - LaMarcus Aldridge
Mr. consistent has been the backbone of this franchise for years. This season has been no different. Ironically, Aldridge actually struggled a bit at the beginning of the year, but over the past couple weeks, I think he's had an epiphany. It appears that for the first in his career, LMA realizes that he cannot be stopped. Here are his Q1 stats, and again, keep in mind that he didn't get off to a great start:
There's so much gold I could talk about here. The bottom line is that LaMarcus Aldridge is the best PF in the NBA when he wants to be. What characterizes this desire? Tough defensive rebounding, attacking the rim instead of settling for fade-aways and just generally carrying himself like the best player on the court. His performances against Indiana and Oklahoma City were perfect examples of this. His performances early in the season were the opposite.
There is no debating that Aldridge is the best player on the Blazers. There's no debate that he's one of the best power forwards in the NBA and a perennial all-star. The debate is whether Aldridge is good enough to carry a contender. It's hard to say "no" if you've watched the last two weeks of Portland basketball.
Early on, Aldridge was struggling from the field and the common theme was, "he's just missing too many jumpers; those will start to drop." That was never true. In fact, if you looked at LMA's shot chart, his FG% was right in the middle or even better than his 3-year averages from all over the floor. So why was his overall FG% down? Because he was settling for too many jumpers. His shots outside the paint were at a career high, about 25% higher than during his best statistical seasons ('10-'11 and '11-'12). Once he started to take a higher percentage of his shots in the paint, his FG% started to creep back up.
Going forward, Aldridge needs to continue doing what he's been doing: grab those tough rebounds, play with a high level of energy, stay focused on the defensive end and don't just settle for jump shots. He's a great jump shooter and when his turn-around is on, he's unstoppable, but a shot around the rim is still a better look in the long run. Going inside more often will also boost his FTr up closer to where it was in '10-'11, his best statistical season. Further, consistently mixing up his offensive arsenal, like he's been doing lately, keeps the defense guessing, opening up easier looks for himself and his teammates.
Long story short, this will probably go down as the best season of Aldridge's career. If he continues to commit to hitting the defensive glass and challenging defenders in the paint instead of settling for jumpers, he'll have a top-10 season league-wide and solidify himself as one of the game's premier scorers.
C - Robin Lopez
RoLo and Portland are a match made in heaven. What he brings to the team, particularly the intangible things that don't show up in the box score, makes him a key part of Portland's surprising early-season success. Despite his valuable intangible contributions, Robin's Q1 stats aren't too bad either:
Robin's value is clear when watching Blazer games. He's a tough, high-energy player who doesn't make many mistakes, plays decent defense, often acting as Portland's lone rim-protector, grabs high-traffic rebounds and scores efficiently without ever having any plays fun for him. In short, he's exactly what Portland needed at the center position.
After suffering through a Hickson/Aldridge frontcourt last season, it's no wonder that Blazer fans love Robin Lopez. He's so much more valuable to the team than Hickson was, though a comparison isn't exactly fair given their vastly different skill-sets.
The most surprising thing about Lopez is his offensive ability. There are times when he flashes controlled and effective post-moves that lead to great looks. He'd definitely capable of scoring more than the team asks him too, but he doesn't command the ball and given the scoring prowess of the other Blazer starters, this in and of itself is valuable. The fact that Lopez doesn't need the ball but can score when called upon shouldn't be understated.
At this point in his career, Lopez is what he is. Were he a more dynamic rim-protector, more pundits might be buying into the Blazers as true contenders out West. Nonetheless, Portland's continued success is dependent on his presence. If Lopez can maintain his level of play, and there's no reason to believe otherwise, he may have found a long-term home in Portland.